If We Can’t Kill The O’Hare Airport Connector, Can We At Least Make It Useful?

Chicago’s business community has been screaming for a fast transit link to O’Hare airport for decades, and it seems that it’s the idea that just won’t die. Chicago Tribune transportation writer Jon Hilkevitch reports that recently re-elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel is seeking to revive the airport link yet again:

Emanuel has made repeated statements recently that Chicago should try again to launch a nonstop express passenger rail service between downtown and O’Hare, patterned after the premium express trains that for years have been operating between airports and city centers in Europe and Asia, including London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris and Copenhagen, Denmark.

To his credit, Hilkevitch seems skeptical of the proposal, reporting that there are no financing measures in place that could support such a service, and that the mayor’s staff wish he would talk it up a little less. Hilkevitch’s skepticism of this project’s feasibility is perhaps mirrored by the standard–and quite well argued–urbanist line that airport transit is overrated. Stephen Smith–certainly no bleeding-heart class warrior–perhaps put it best, in a New York City context:

Globetrotting elites might salivate over the possibility of stepping off of an airplane and into a train that will take them directly to a starchitect-designed Penn Station in midtown, but if the next mayor wants to make a meaningful difference in the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, he should listen to the outer-borough residents who make up the majority of New Yorkers. Not landlords, business travelers and architecture critics in Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn.

The proposition of a new airport connector is, if anything, somewhat more absurd in Chicago. Chicago already boasts one of North America’s premier rail-airport connections, with the Blue Line running directly into a terminal at O’Hare (sometimes a little too far) and the Orange Line terminating at Midway (though a decent, somewhat inconvenient walk from the terminal).  Sure, riding the Blue Line from the Loop to O’Hare is kind of slow, but riders are already seeing results from CTA’s nearly half-billion-dollar rehab project, and it’s generally faster than the amazingly clogged Kennedy Expressway regardless of time of day.

So no, Chicago doesn’t need a new airport connector so much as the city’s business elites are seeking to hijack the planning process and spend the city’s limited infrastructure resources on a luxury item for themselves (seriously, just check out the prices for comparable airport connectors listed in the Hilkevitch piece). But at least someone powerful is vocally advocating for new transit in Chicago. Is there a way to harness the energies of the business elite and yoke them to a plan that could benefit the city more broadly?

One plan that seems to be emerging along those lines is the CrossRail Chicago proposal pushed by the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association. At first glance, the CrossRail Chicago marketing plan appears cringeworthy in the same elite-focused way as other O’Hare express proposals, selling the project as bringing “New, electrified express trains linking O’Hare to the Loop, McCormick Place and the University of Chicago.” Can you imagine a more business class set of destinations in Chicago? Underneath the elite-focused language, though, there’s an element of significant promise to the CrossRail plan that deserves some attention from business elites and transit advocates alike.

The key element of the CrossRail plan is the idea of using existing run-through platforms at Chicago Union Station to connect the Metra Electric District, the highest-quality passenger corridor in the area, to other lines on the North Side, with an emphasis on a northwestern connection to O’Hare. (graphics from the PDF flyer)

crossrail chicago downtown

With this–relatively uncomplicated, although somewhat capacity-constrained–core connection made, the rest of the regional network, which would serve both local and intercity services, could be built out in phases as money becomes available.

crossrail chicago phases

The first phase would be the downtown connector and electrification of the Milwaukee District-West and North Central Service (Canadian Pacific and Canadian National) tracks out to O’Hare. The entire distance would use existing right-of-way that primarily serves passenger trains, but sees significant freight traffic as well in some segments. I argued in my post on turning Metra into regional rail that the O’Hare connector would not be my first choice for a North Side connection to the Metra Electric District, but it does serve a significant need, and cost was a significant factor in my argument. In fact, the MD-W line serves one of the largest areas of Chicago currently completely unserved by high-quality fixed-guideway transit (apologies for the poor drawing).

Red outline is transit-less area, black line roughly traces the CrossRail path to O'Hare.

Red outline is transit-less area, black line roughly (variations may be blamed on my crappy trackpad and broken mouse) traces the CrossRail path to O’Hare.

Because of how industry, much of which has now moved out, historically clustered around the railroad tracks, there are plenty of opportunities for much-needed TOD projects along the MD-W path from the Loop to O’Hare. The adjacent neighborhoods aren’t among Chicago’s densest, but they’re diverse and still reasonably walkable and dense.

Would the CrossRail proposal, and the O’Hare connection it offers, be my first choice for Chicago’s next major transit expansion? No, probably not.  But it does offer significant new mobility potential for a large swath of the city, while potentially giving the business community the upgraded O’Hare connection they’ve always wanted. A CrossRail Chicago-like plan, assuming that it came with local as well as express service, could very well be a benefit to the larger population of Chicago in a way that other airport connectors have struggled to be. It would introduce the concept of regional rail upgrades to the extensive commuter network to the Chicago area, and indeed, has the potential to be the most promising regional rail project in the US, bettered in North America by Toronto’s efforts to turn Metrolinx into a Regional Express Rail. And it could do that while harnessing the energies of the business community, turning their self-centered desire to throw money around into something mutually and widely beneficial. And engaging the business community could–could–in turn bring support for a more extensive transit campaign, a strategy that the Transit Future campaign is clearly relying upon.

But that’s a lot of ifs. It’s a lot of conditions to be met. And it’s a lot of uncertainty. There would seem to be a way forward that could both satisfy the globally connected dreams of Chicago’s business elite and provide public benefit, but it is a path fraught with potential disagreement, waste, and acrimony. I would, tentatively, support an O’Hare connector project that followed these lines, and perhaps even name it one of the city’s top transit priorities. Chicago would do well to remember the experience of Philadelphia, which spent 25 years building perhaps the nation’s most advanced piece of regional rail infrastructure with significant backing from the business community, including (of course) an airport connector. In the meantime, the (much more heavily used) rest of the system fell to pieces, and the Center City Commuter Tunnel has never been used to its full, transformational potential.  A CrossRail-based O’Hare Connector might provide mobility to a large swath of Chicago that needs it. It might provide the vehicle by which the Metra Electric District finally becomes the rapid transit system it is destined to be. But if that’s going to happen, it’s going to take sustained work, cooperation, backbone, political savvy, and not a small dose of luck.

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9 thoughts on “If We Can’t Kill The O’Hare Airport Connector, Can We At Least Make It Useful?

  1. Don’t do it. Remember the way Cuomo batted down any alternative proposals that would serve LaGuardia less stupidly than his Willets Point shuttle? The people who propose these airport links don’t give a rat’s ass about improving urban transit, and will use any such proposal as a way of coopting any good transit sentiment toward the express airport connectors they want to build. Just say no, and when the idea dies, propose Crossrail Chicago with airport service as the afterthought that it is.

    • Who is this absolutist rhetoric actually helping?

      Crossrail Chicago isn’t inherently bad. It could become a terrible project if it happens at the expense of other more vital parts of the rail network in Chicago, but I’d like to believe that it’s better for everyone if we work towards keeping the rest of the system intact while expanding its reach through Crossrail instead of sticking our collective fingers in our ears and chanting NO NO NO JUST SAY NO, and then when the proposal finally dies, turning right back around and proposing the same damn thing you just shouted down except with that the added qualifier of “but make no mistake, this isn’t an airport connector.”

      It’s not like we’re pulling the route way off-alignment just to hit the airport. There ought to be room for a mixture of express and local service on those tracks as long as local service is fought for. Crossrail is an above-average to reasonably good transit proposal and the fact that it has to pass by an airport doesn’t suddenly reduce its value to the level of Cuomo’s MetsTrain AirTrain.

      No, the way its value gets torpedoed is when advocates insist on saying NO WAY NOT NOW NOT EVER instead of working towards making it the best project it can possibly be.

      • Crossrail Chicago, as an idea, is great. An airport-centric version, nope.

        As for local and express tracks, let me point out that neither Crossrail/Crossrail 2 nor the RER has these. For the most part, all trains make all stops; you occasionally see trains skip a stop or two, but there are no consistent express trains.

        The problem is that the interests I’m identifying as negative here – Cuomo, Rahm, the Daley clan, and other people whose only ideology is their own power – will never give a crap about a transit investment that’s useful to riders. They get business-class kudos from an express airport link, and they’ll use their power to subvert any otherwise-useful plan. For example, they’ll cut all the useful parts in order to look fiscally responsible, and keep only the $100,000+ per rider airport connection.

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  4. While implementing electrified Metra service to O’Hare from a connection to the MED would be useful for many trips, restoring the Paulina Connector between Lake St and the Blue Line where it becomes an L along with extending from the Pink Line at Medical Center south tolink up with the Orange Line to Midway would be a far more useful investment. Providing access to both airports without having to traverse the Loopopens up new trapid travel patyterns. Connecting the Pink ROW inboth directionson the Orange allows for extending an L stub to McCormick Place–giving West/NorthWest Side residents access to jobs there again skipping Loop crowding.
    As to restoringMetra Electric service levels, step one is the Gray Line Project, including the expansion of service to Hegewisch–serving a transit desert at far lower cost than the Red extension and possible to implement years sooner. (looking in my collection of South Shore Line timetables from the 50s, they used to have 4 local stations between Kensington and Hegewisch.) If NICTD ever gets funding for their Lowell/Munster expansion, that will be the time to move Amtrak/Iowa Pacific Cardinal/Hoosier service off the route through Dolton onto the CSS&SB/CN via the Lake front to the St Charles Air Line with the required new ramp to Union Station eliminating the back up moves.
    In the meantime, upgrading Metra diesel powered service to O’Hare is worth doing. Could have been done for far less than the block 37 stupidity.

    The business types are correct that the “image” of elite expresses to the CBD is good marketing, but the lower wage ground workers need better transit even more.

  5. Why would you expect the business elite to support a route that doesn’t go to the Loop? Block 37 is where it is because that is where the demand is for such a service (even though the service never came) because it is in the middle of the CBD. Union Station is only close enough to the West Loop and a block or two across the river and doesn’t connect to transit to extend its reach. Your proposal removes the major destinations of the Loop, Millennium Park, Museum Campus, and Soldier Field. While the capital cost would admittedly be much lower (despite the not insignificant cost of a new bridge across the Chicago River and one across the Rock Island tracks), the reduced ridership would doom the project. In addition, the increased transit service to the South Side on Metra Electric is only a benefit if it increases service to where people want to go (again, the Loop) instead of splitting trips between Millennium and Union. The best routing is the one that you already proposed last year, which is to have a tunnel near Randolph to connect the MED and NCS lines.

    In short, this concept is a great way to use the business elites to support a project which helps fix a real transit need on the South Side. However, you can’t use the proposal’s support to help the South Side if your adjustment takes away the reason that the original plan has that support in the first place.

  6. The expensive part of “Crossrail Chicago” is the link from the St. Charles Air Line to Union Station. This would also benefit a *hell of a lot of other rail projects in Chicago*, including the High Speed Rail plans to St Louis and the trains to Carbondale and Champaign.

    Unfortunately I really don’t expect it to get funded.

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